Ghosts

Megan Barker's courageous new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts follows the story of Helen Alving as she attempts to arrange funding for a children's home. The arrival of her son triggers a series of revelations about the conduct of the older generation from which there can be no coming back. The original play dealt with key issues of its day: religion as a palliative, the rise of venereal disease, the double standards of the upper classes. This revolutionary new interpretation allows itself to differ wildly from the original, re-casting the characters as members of a Scottish council, keeping the bare bones of the story but largely re-writing it to reflect the concerns of our time. To take such liberties with a classic text is extremely risky, but this new interpretation is a triumph.

The heavy symbolism is a perfect counterpoint to the subtle weaving of lies and quiet deals happening on the stage so that boldness and secrecy manage to occupy the same space.

Barker's interpretation is highly theatrical: stark visual metaphors dominate its construction and pin down the universal nature of the play, and her language is rich and versatile. She includes eloquent, poetic soliloquies and gripping naturalistic dialogue in a way that draws out the strengths of both. Her plot is also significantly more complex than Ibsen’s. There always seems to be another layer to unpack.

In the first act, all this works brilliantly. The heavy symbolism is a perfect counterpoint to the subtle weaving of lies and quiet deals happening on the stage so that boldness and secrecy manage to occupy the same space. Dark hints of the kind of corruption we are dealing with mount up until we reach a state of horrified certainty, aware all the time of how realistic this story is - recent revelations in the real-world press have ensured that. The full story is gradually revealed through a series of beautifully structured revelations, with the past gradually bleeding into the present.

However, by the second act, this desire to reveal the whole complex backstory is realised only at the expense of the story in the present. Act two is surprisingly low on plot, and character development is also minimal. The extraordinary first act brings its characters to breaking point, and then the second act isn't really sure what to do with them. Alison Peebles' Helen Alving is perfectly poised between competence and vulnerability in act one, but seems to have nowhere to go in the second act. Similarly, John Hogg's terrifyingly brittle Oswald doesn't receive the character development he deserves.

Despite this slight disappointment, however, this play is an incredibly accomplished re-imagining of Ibsen's classic. This dramatic interpretation perhaps reaches closer to the spirit of the original than a straightforward restaging could hope to do.

Reviews by Grace Knight

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Performances

Location

The Blurb

On the face of it, local councillor Helen Alving’s financial support for the creation of a Childhood Trust and the donation of her ‘big house’ to the Council to create a new looked-after children’s facility seems to be a magnanimously benevolent gesture to honour her late husband, the Captain.

With the unexpected arrival of her son Oswald 'from abroad’ however, Helen’s carefully constructed reality is torn apart, and the ghosts from their tormented past manifest grotesquely in shocking revelations of political corruption and abuse.

Megan Barker’s dark and gripping adaptation of the Ibsen classic exposes a litany of terrible secrets and the incontrovertible damage these have caused.